Jennifer Conroyd had run marathons before, but the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10, 2010, was special. Her siblings were coming from coast to coast to run with her for Ben, her nephew who had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of 18 months.
Calling themselves "10-10-10 for Ben," Conroyd's team raised $10,000 to donate to juvenile diabetes. A personal trainer, marathon and triathlon coach, Conroyd was the team captain.
Then she tore a calf muscle six weeks before the marathon. She couldn't put weight on her leg, let alone run. Conroyd knew she was out of the race. Or was she?
"There's got to be a way," Conroyd remembers thinking.
She had heard vaguely of deep water running, went to the Oak Brook Park District Family Aquatic Center to use the pool and researched the subject. She found an article by two authors who said a runner could recover from an injury in nine weeks by training in water.
With only six weeks to go, Conroyd sent an email asking one of the authors to contact her. When Kevin Beck called, he said if she hired him he'd have her ready for the Chicago Marathon. Somewhat skeptically, Conroyd agreed to give it a try.
"I said to myself, 'if this works, if you can stay in top shape -- not just running shape, but marathon shape -- this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life,'" Conroyd recalled. "I ran the marathon very successfully without running on land for six weeks."
Two months after the 2010 Chicago Marathon, Conroyd was on a plane to Canada to be certified as a deep water running instructor and coach. She explained that Canada and Australia have been leaders in deep water running.
"There is no certification for it here in the United States," she said.
Now the only certified deep running coach in the U.S. and the owner of Fluid Running, Conroyd is working to put together a U.S. certification program that she expects to start offering this fall. Lots of people are interested, she said.
Some of those interested have been taking the deep water running classes, private and semiprivate training that Conroyd has offered at Oak Brook Park District for the past two years. She said about 100 people have taken deep water running and other facilities have called the park district about starting a similar program.
"It's just fun and it's different," she said. "It's all the same benefits of running on land and more."
Workouts are choreographed to music with intervals set to maximize cardio benefits. Deep water running strengthens not just the legs, but the core and upper body in ways that land running does not, Conroyd said. Participants can burn up to 30 percent more calories than running on land.
The hydrostatic pressure, or water pressure, on the body also promotes healing by reducing swelling from injuries, improving circulation and flushing out toxins.
Conroyd said all this happens without the jarring impact of feet hitting the ground that can result in injuries.
"You're getting all the benefits of running on land without the impact," she said.
That's not to say fluid running should be compared to grandma's water aerobics, Conroyd said. Participants wear a flotation belt that keeps them from sinking and allows them to focus on running. Beginners and even non-swimmers are welcome, but experienced runners can benefit. Any run can be duplicated in water, Conroyd said. She herself has done 20-mile runs in deep water to prepare for marathons.
"Water running is as easy or hard as you want to make it," she said. "(You can) do this incredibly hard running workout and come out of the water feeling like you had a massage."
You also might work up an appetite, said Sarah Kelly, a chiropractor who began taking a weekly deep running class with Conroyd this winter. A longtime runner, Kelly had started experiencing hip pain and felt her running routine had become stagnant. Some cross-training would be beneficial, she thought.
"What I underestimated was the intensity of the workout," she said. "I feel hungry. My body feels wonderful. I feel pleasantly tired."
Now when she runs on land, Kelly said she feels increased strength and less hip pain. Deep water running can be beneficial for people of all sizes, shapes and ability levels, she added.
"It's not about keeping up with someone else. It's about you working at your own pace," she said.
A competitive runner, Kevin O'Brien said he had experienced several injuries this past year that threatened to sideline his training until a physical therapist recommended deep water running. He took private sessions with Conroyd a month ago to learn the proper form and now makes water running part of his regular workout routine.
"My body feels much, much better," he said. "It's amazing. It's energizing. (And) you work up a pretty good sweat."
Conroyd, who is currently training for the Flying Pig marathon in Cincinnati in early May, said she's always been into fitness. A triathlete, she completed an Ironman in 2009 that required her to swim 2½ miles in open water, bike 112 miles and run a 26.2-mile marathon. Her husband, John, is also a triathlete and an Ironman. Her three teenage sons are swimmers.
She works with many high school athletes and teaches the deep water classes at Oak Brook Park District Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. New sessions start the second week of April.
"I love my job because my job spreads joy," she said. "Everyone comes out of the water happy."
For information on Jennifer Conroyd's deep water running program, contact (708) 214-6737 or firstname.lastname@example.org.